Proposed Amendments to Iraq’s Personal Status Law Allow Girls to Marry at Age Nine
Three years after proposed amendments to Iraq’s Personal Status Law were knocked down, a new set of amendments has removed clauses that would have legalized rape within marriage and prevented women from leaving the house without their husband’s permission— but the clause which would allow girls to be married off at as early as age nine remains.
Changes to Iraq’s Personal Status Law, which were approved by Iraq’s Council of Representatives on November 1, was signed by 40 members of parliament, and will be officially voted on next May. It’s unlikely that the vote will pass in parliament, but the mere introduction of such amendments highlights the continued threats to women’s rights in the country.
The current Personal Status Law is one of the most liberal laws in the Arab world with regards to women’s rights. According to Nalia Media Corporation, it “restricts child marriages (by setting the legal age of marriage at 18 years), bans forced marriages and restricts polygamy; it curtails men’s prerogatives in divorce, expands women’s rights in divorce, extends child custody to mothers, and improves inheritance rights for women.”
Naturally, many women’s rights supporters were upset at the introduction of amendments which would undermine the law’s intent. Campaigners in the Kurdish region of both Iraq and Syria held protests, and many have made posts on social media that mock the proposals.
The UN and other women’s rights groups have also condemned the legislation. Jan Kubis, the UN Secretary General’s special representative to Iraq, called on the Council of Representatives to “conduct a wider consultation on the draft amendments in a participatory manner to recommit to and ensure the full respect, protection and fulfilment of women and girls’ rights in Iraq in relation to matrimonial and other matters.”
The changes would violate child protections provided in the 1994 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Iraq is a signatory at the convention, which defines a child as any human being under the age of 18, unless the age is decided through national legislation. Iraq’s own law sets the legal age for marriage at 18, but judges can allow girls as young as 15 to marry in “urgent” cases.
The law represents teachings of the Jaafari school of Shia religious jurisprudence and would only apply to Iraq’s Shia community. The power would shift from government courts to religious courts to decide at what age the girls can marry.
This would put many girls at risk of earlier, forced marriages, as well as at a higher risk of sexual assault. Child marriages are already a large issue in Iraqi society and the law, according to Suad Abu-Dayehh of Jordan’s Equality Now, would lead to “an explosion of child marriage in Iraq.”
According to UNICEF, one-in-five girls are currently married as children in Iraq. An organization called “Girls Not Brides” has cited financial hardship in Iraq as a reason for the increase in child brides over the past twenty years. In addition to poverty, conflict and strict religious and social traditions contribute to the high rate of child marriage.
Rather than setting back women’s rights, the Iraqi government should pay special attention to enshrining women’s rights in their laws, particularly in light of ISIS’s human rights abuses against women. Skye Wheeler, a women’s rights emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch, explained that “ISIS attacks on women and girls, especially Yezidis, have created a new and terrifying crisis for women and girls in the region. One way Iraq’s government can help these women is to change its laws and policies to better protect all women who have been subjected to rape.”
In addition to committing human rights abuses, ISIS has limited women’s freedom of movement, access to health care, and education. It’s critical that the Iraqi government and other international and regional organizations fight to give women more rights to counter ISIS. Passing the proposed amendments would only further harm women. As Kubis argued, the parliament should “seize this opportunity of the process to amend the Personal Status Law” to recommit to respecting women and protecting their rights.